Tension spread through the camp in the returning scout’s wake. She’d passed the challenges, and the guards at the edge of camp knew the cat and her mission; none sought to impede her. One of the skirmishers brought her a waterskin, which she drank from as she hustled; other than that, everybody stayed out of her way.

She reached the command tent without a word spoken since answering the sentries’ challenges, and the duty guard lifted the flap for her the moment she came into view. So it was that she ducked through and was still panting from her run when she found herself under the scrutiny of four very different people, no two of the same race, never mind the same insignia – the commanders of four different mercenary companies in joint council. Her salute wasn’t entirely regulation-crisp, but nobody in the tent much minded

“Catch your breath, soldier,” said her own commander, the jaguar in green-dyed leathers with the crossed spear-and-fang of Arveena’s Rangers bold red on her green armband, returning the salute. “Do you need a healer?” When the scout shook her head, Farah, Arveena’s eldest daughter, gestured, and an aide brought a camp stool over, which the scout sank onto gratefully onto, gulping more water.

“Not a bad time,” said the heavyset brown bull, thick fingers sliding over the map, tracing between two points. “Guess you were right, Farah – couldn’t expect cavalry to get there and back faster, not in these woods.”

“Of course not,” Farah scoffed. “The Rangers have plied these woods, and denser, for longer than you’ve been fighting, Haran.”

“Enough,” the ram in shining plate cut in, holding up a gauntlet-clad hand, before the bull could snap a retort. “We already ceded to your unit’s expertise, Farah – don’t rub it in. I just hope this is worth the delay.”

“Even you wouldn’t charge in without reconnaissance, Kellim,” said Peregrine, the only member of the council not seated – no chair had ever been made that would be comfortable for a centaur, anyway. “If we moved troops to the west ridge only to find that the east flank had a single, exposed sentry, we’d waste just as much time repositioning as we’ll use now to get it right the first time.”

“And I doubt this bunch is stupid enough to leave such a pronounced opening,” Kellim said. “Or to not be sending scouts in turn, which might find us. But enough.” His hand made a sweeping gesture. “Whenever you’re ready, Scout.”

The scout was still a bit short of breath, but managed to detail the layout, disposition, and what she’d seen of sentries around the reavers’ camp. Farah leaned forward as her scout spoke, setting tokens on the map to represent tents, fires, troops, and sentry posts.

As the details filled in, Kellim fumed. He’d been right; that ridge, imposing barrier as it looked to be, was the most lightly-guarded section of the reaver camp. Either they didn’t know there were easier paths up and down it, or they didn’t think those paths easy enough for the mercenaries to bother using.

Well, they’d never dealt with the Hammer of Krenth before.

He fumed in silence, though. He’d already brought it up, just moments ago; there was no need for him to rub it in further, either. They’d have to eat enough crow as it was, and even if the Hammer would be the vanguard, he was no fool – he still needed support from the other companies. They wouldn’t completely abandon this operation, but they might not be as willing to co-operate fully if their commanders got offended.

And if the other commanders thought he was prickly, well, perhaps they should take a closer look at themselves. He was just impatient to get the job done, he wasn’t nearly so worried about getting his ego bruised as some of them could be.

He and the Hammer of Krenth had carried the day too often for him to need reassurance in himself. He knew what he and his unit could do. And so long as this delay didn’t get innocents killed, he and his men would bring victory again.

“So the essence of the plan stays,” Peregrine was saying. “My Coursers will swing around to the east, foot making for the trail here and the forest around it, while cavalry and centaurs move to block off the grasslands.”

Kellim picked up the thread from there. “The Bearswood Company,” he nodded to the bull, “can handle the northern stretch of forest. It’s more open, and the light sentry coverage to the west should let you get into place without being noticed early. The Hammer will move in behind you, scaling the ridge by this path, with a unit of Rangers on point to pick off these sentries.” He tapped the map near a few of the markers. “Once they’re down, they let the Hammer pass, and the main body of Rangers spreads out over the ridge to cover us. When the horn sounds, we close in from all sides.”

“One squad of Rangers and two of Coursers will guard our rear,” Peregrine went on. “The last squad of Rangers will stay here at camp with our support crews, ready to tend to our own wounded and any captives who need it.”

“Let’s get ready, then,” Farah said, pushing up to her feet. All around the map table, commanders followed suit.

But as he stood, Kellim snorted. “Get ready?” he scoffed. “The Hammer has been ready for the last two candlemarks. None of this,” he waved a hand over the map, “will take us longer to prepare for than the trek into position.” With a tight grin, he concluded, “You lot just catch up as best you can. We’ll be waiting for the horn to sound.”

He strode out through the tent flap and turned toward the Hammer’s section of the camp, bellowing orders. The heavy infantry of the Hammer of Krenth gathered to his call, squads shifting place in response to his instructions even as they formed up.

In moments, the Hammer was ready. As soon as the others were in place, the Hammer would drop — and this sorry bunch of reavers would be sorrry to have drawn their wrath.

Not that they’d have time to rue it for long.